| Vol. 4 Issue 20 / June 21, 2004
What Journalists Want:
Nine Things for Scientists to Think about Before Talking to Reporters
By Jason Socrates Bardi
When I was in Seattle a few months ago at the annual meeting of the
American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Association
of Science Writers, I asked a number of seasoned reporters what advice
they have for scientists who speak with the press.
Here are some of their responses.
1. Understand that Science Journalism Is Educational
When scientists speak to reporters, they are ultimately speaking to
the public, helping to not just educate people about what they do in particular,
but to educate the public about science in general and to help gain support
Science reporting is educationalmore educational than other beats.
Weather reporters don't explain the difference between hail and snow.
Traffic reporters don't waste time explaining the nature of congestion
or expounding the meaning of "a ladder in the number three lane." But
science reporters need to take those extra step to convey their news,
for example explaining how cellular gene expression works or defining
basic terms such as "DNA."
Because almost all basic research today is funded at least in part by
taxpayer's money, scientists have a vested interest in communicating the
nature and benefits of their research to a broad audience outside of the
scientific community. And the public has the right to know.
2. Understand Your Audience
The public at large knows very little about science. In fact, in the
most recent report of National Science Foundation science indicators,
more than a third of all Americans responded incorrectly that radioactive
milk can be made safe by boiling it and almost half of all people could
not answer correctly the question, How long does it take for the Earth
to go around the sun?
Interestingly, the same NSF survey shows that the American public is
overwhelmingly supportive of basic science and is interested in knowing
more about it.
A scientist speaking with a reporter should assume the audience will
be interested in science and will able to understand it, but will have
zero knowledge to begin with.
"Keep it fundamental," Associated Press reporter Paul Recer said.
3. Know What Makes a Good Story
Science stories are no different from stories on any other subject in
that they include all the classical elements of narrative stories. When
evaluating a potential story, journalists are not simply looking for information.
They are looking for stories that:
- Are timely. Is the discovery new? Is it related to other breaking
- Are wide in scope, affecting many people directly or indirectly.
Is the research related to a health condition that many people are concerned
about? Does it speak to trends in society?
- Have a particular thematic angle. Perhaps a local angledoes
the research impact people in the region? Perhaps an industry anglewould
the story interest a business writer who covers biotechnology?
- Reflects conflict. Can the story hold the audience's interest by
describing competing theories, competing groups, or competing individuals?
Scientists should be aware that conflict is the backbone of much reporting.
- Demonstrates human drama. Who are the characters? A young scientist
who dazzles colleagues, an old scientist who still has the passion,
or middle-aged scientist who is motivated by personal tragedy or triumph?
4. Understand Who Reporters Are
Science reporters come from a great diversity of backgrounds. They include
former scientists but also those with little or no science background.
Some have been science reporters for decadeseven specializing in
a particular area such as Alzheimer's or AIDS. Others are general assignment
reporters who cover everything from local politics to entertainment to
A scientist should feel free to ask reporters what their beat and backgrounds
are. But they should also keep in mind that a reporter who trained in
medicine 35 years ago may not understand modern molecular biology any
better than a reporter with no science training at all.
Reporters will, in general, do as much preparation before an interview
as they have time for. This could be reading a press release and going
over a paper in fine detail, but sometimes it means no preparation at
all. They may be handed a story from their editor or producer and jump
straight into an interview when a deadline is looming.
Even if a reporter is familiar with a subject, they may be working on
multiple unrelated stories simuntaneously. A print reporter may be writing
about the effect of toxins on fetal brain cells in the morning, about
canine heredity at lunch, and then about the use of facial cues as predictors
of marital stability in the afternoon. A local television crew might in
a single day cover a police car chase, the opening of a new petting zoo,
and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
5. Have a General Knowledge of Print Media
Print media, such as newspapers, magazines, and internet publications
(or internet versions of print publications) pick up stories from a variety
Top scientific journals email tip sheets to the press, which include
the titles, abstracts, or topical summaries of articles appearing in an
upcoming issue. Institutions such as Scripps Research may also send out
their own press releases around the same time.
Many reporters will generate stories based on these discoveries as they
come out. Often stories will appear on the wire services, such as the
Associated Press or Reuters or more specialized services such as HealthDay,
and these will often generate additional stories at other media outlets.
Many reporters also write stories that are not on some breaking discovery
but on a much larger trend in science or society. Editors or producers
may assign stories to reporters, or reporters may become interested in
a story then pitch it to their editor or producer. The story may be more
complex, drawing upon multiple interviews with a wide variety of sources,
and reporting a larger trend or featuring a whole field of research.
The nature of the storyshort or long, simple or technicalwill
be influenced by its venue.
In general, wire reporters need to report stories rapidly, and cover
the basics of who, what, where, when, why, and how. One wire reporter
told me that he averages about three stories a week. Another told me that
she does as many as 10 a day, though these are often stories of just a
Newspaper reporters or journalists working for monthly magazines may
write stories that are thousands of words long and reflect weeks or months
of research or interviews.
6. Know How to Give a Broadcast Interview
In many ways, television is king of the media. According to a poll conducted
by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, people get their
news from local television stations more than any other source. While
audiences of the national network news shows have decreased in the last
decade, multiple 24-hour cable news stations have been launched in recent
years, and audiences for these have increased.
At the same time, television stories are usually much shorter than stories
in print. And they must have pictures.
According to a 1998 survey of local television stations nationwide sponsored
by Columbia University's Project for Excellence in Journalism, more than
half of all local television stories are less than 45 seconds long, and
some 43 percent are less than 30 seconds long. This includes the introduction
from the anchor, the interview, and the field reporter's commentary. While
television news magazine programs like 60 Minutes and National
Public Radio's All Things Considered do exist, these are the exception,
not the rule.
This means that the entire length of a scientist's time on camera could
easily run less than 10 seconds.
Unless participating in a news magazine or call-in format, a scientist
should prepare for a broadcast interview by creating a few sound bytes
of six to seven seconds each that focus on the most interesting parts
of the story. Then, the scientist should practice these sound bytes in
the same way he or she might prepare for a lecture.
Scientists should put qualifiers in the middle of a sound byte
and not at the beginning or end where it might be edited out ("People
who inherit a single copy of this gene from one of their parents are usually
the same ones who develop the disease").
Television reporters are intensely interested in pictures. Scientists
can have drawings, charts, and other graphics to help illustrate what
they want to say. A good graphic helps tell a story, but scientists should
keep in mind that the most interesting graphics may not be the most relevant
ones. Scientists should also be prepared to accommodate reporters' search
for a visually interesting setting, which may turn offices into sets and
position people in places they don't usually go.
Scientists would do well to prepare their sound bytes, but they should
also be themselves.
I asked Ira Flatow, host of National Public Radio's Science Friday
what he thought were the characteristics of a perfect guest, and he answered
that it would be someone who could carry on a great conversation, who
could relate his or her ideas without speaking in jargon, and who has
a sense of humor.
A good interview is a good conversationsomething that could perhaps
be read and enjoyed as a transcript quite apart from the stories it inspires.
In fact, these days many of the major media outlets have taken to printing
transcripts on their web sites along with video, stills, and other materials.
This does not mean that the interview will be all wine and roses. One
reporter I spoke with described a good interview as a cross between a
cocktail party and a rugby scrum.
7. Know How to Give a Print Interview
Most print reporters will try to schedule an in-person interview if time
allows. This way, reporters can see the scientist's facial expressions
and environment. They can observe details like how the scientist dresses,
what is on the walls, and what the lab's graduate students are doing.
These peripheral details provide the reporter with additional angles to
draw upon, and may even make it into the story.
Of course, phone interviews often must suffice. And, as a last resort,
for factual clarification, or conveying specific follow-up questions,
a journalist may opt for e-mail.
Scientists can help an interview go well by:
- Thinking beyond the description of what they did to the reasons why
it is importantnot why the research is different but why is it
- Considering the context for the research;
- Starting out with simple descriptions and increasing the complexity
as time goes on;
- Avoiding complex terms, for example saying "heart attack" instead
of "myocardial infarction;"
- Avoiding jargon and acronyms that are meaningless to the average
reader or viewer;
- Telling the reporter what is not being said (e.g., "Having this gene
does NOT mean you will necessarily have the disease;")
- Taking the time to develop messages and selecting the two or three
key messages to communicate;
- Couching messages in language that signifies the importance of that
message ("The most important thing to remember is...");
- Keeping the language to short, clear sentences, as if describing
research to a neighbor or relative;
- Offering some technical information, but not too much. A reporter
will always ask for more technical details if he/she needs them;
- Using analogies. Journalists love to quote scientists at their most
metaphorical. A story is improved through the use of these metaphors;
- Restating key messages at the end of the interview.
Scientists should also anticipate follow-up questions. Reporters are
usually looking for those interesting hooks that can make their story
more compelling. If a scientist mentions he or she has been interested
in curing cancer ever since childhood, a reporter's next question will
probably be "What happened to you as a child?"
8. Help Journalists Get It Right
Journalism, says former New York Times science editor Cornelia
Dean, is an exhausting profession. Journalists work long days and are
worried all the time about getting the facts straight, lying awake at
night worrying that they missed something. The most important thing for
a journalist is to get the story right. "If you get the facts wrong, the
whole enterprise is pointless," she says.
Scientists should know that journalists are committed to getting the
facts correct. The same can be said for their news organizations, since
the reputation of the show or periodical is at stake. (Of course, there
are unscrupulous individuals in journalism just as there are in science).
At the same time, journalism is a human endeavor and journalists occasionally
make mistakes. Also, science reporting covers very complex and technically
Scientists can play an important role in helping the reporter get the
facts straight by:
- Always being honest and forthright;
- Being willing to say, "I don't know" if something is way outside
of your field;
- Being willing to call journalists back or email them with specific
information that they may not have available at the time of the interview;
- Recognizing that journalists operate on tight deadlines and giving
them prompt replies;
- Referring reporters to colleagues who might help with the story.
In general, it's always a good idea to provide the names of colleagues
or peers who agree with you and (more importantly) who disagree. "It
helps the reporter get a better story," says U.S. News & World Report
senior writer Charles Petit. "It serves the reader and the public."
- Suggesting at the end of an interview that the reporter should feel
free to call back with additional questions. A scientist can also offer
(humbly) to help check facts, but should never expect to be shown the
story in advance of publication.
9. Avoid Common Pitfalls
Scientists should take care to avoid the pitfalls of talking to the
Sometimes scientists spend 15 minutes carefully discussing science with
a journalist, then 15 seconds talking off the cuff. This distribution
will not necessarily be reflected in the article. To the reporter, off-the-cuff
remarks might be the most interesting thing said all day and may be featured
prominently in the story.
Scientists should never assume that anything is "off the record". Off
the record means many things to many different people.
Scientists should feel free to speculatewith caution. Intelligent,
informed speculation is frequently welcomed by the press. A former football
coach may be interviewed for an expert opinion on the outcome of a game
not yet played, a Hollywood insider might be sought for speculation on
the success of a celebrity marriage, and a scientist might be asked to
speculate about some area of science that is still being discovered. But
scientists should always make absolutely sure the reporter understands
their speculation is speculation and not fact.
Scientists should never ask to see a copy of an article before it is
published, and never expect that it will be offered.
Many reporters are explicitly instructed by their media outlets not
to send copy to a source before the story appears. Tom Siegfried, the
science editor at the Dallas Morning News was adamant about this
when I asked him. "A story, once it is done," he said, "does not go outside
the paper to anybody else."
Not everyone agrees completely. Some reporters do show unpublished pieces
(or parts of them) to their sources.
Boyce Rensberger, who is the former science editor of the Washington
Post and runs the Knight Science Journalism programs at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, argues that it is acceptable for a journalist
to show parts of stories to a source to avoid what he calls "the heartbreak
of being wrong."
In general, when reporters do solicit feedback from scientists, they
will not send a scientist a complete draft of an article to read, but
they may send some portion itperhaps the technical parts or quotes.
Some journalists will read parts of the story over the phone. Some will
send the quotes but not the other copy. Some will send the copy but not
the quotes. At the same time, Rensberger points out, no journalist is
obliged to do this and no journalist is ever forced to do so.
Scientists who are reviewing copy should always resist the urge to edit
for style (unless of course invited to do so). They should also resist
the urge for precision. Words that a journalist chooses are not always
the same words that a scientist would choose, but what is imprecise is
not necessarily untrue. Technical precision is often put aside for the
sake of clarity or even style.
At the end of the day, the story is the reporter's and not the scientist's.
The reporter's name is on the byline.
Send comments to: mikaono[at]scripps.edu
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